For all this time that I’ve been living in Florence, Italy, I’ve never taken a cooking class. Or rather, I’ve never attended a cooking class that is offered to the public. I know that many travelers to Italy take classes, but life itself here is one big lesson in good food.
My in-laws are both great cooks, and I quickly learned a few tricks from them so that Tommaso would not fade away to nothing in my care; these have become my daily foods for which I buy ingredients automatically. And from my husband’s grandmother I learned how to make crostata for those rare moments that I have time to knead dough. But I recently took a lunchtime cooking class to learn a new recipe, and I found it really enlightening to compare what I have picked up from my husband’s family with tips from a pro. And now I have one more dish in my repertoire!
Recently I met Jacqui, a British expat who is well settled here in Florence, and who has recently founded a cooking school called Food For Friends with her Neapolitan friend, Francesca. They teach small classes, she told me, in a palazzo in the Santa Croce area. Her enthusiasm for this new adventure is contagious and I just wanted to keep talking to her, so when she invited me to join them in the kitchen along with another vegetarian student, how could I say no?
The two have been close friends for over a decade and it’s amusing to watch them together. Francesca does not speak English, so Jacqui translates what Francesca teaches, but adds her own Anglo two cents’ worth. For example, the Italian woman will say ‘add just a bit of oil’ which the English lady will then say ‘she says just a bit of oil, which means cover the whole pan a finger deep’. Jacquie’s role here is as a cultural translator, writer of recipes with actual measurements, sous-chef and entertainment element. Francesca is the mamma cook, the true Italian woman who has a natural flair for food. It’s the perfect pairing of friends, that transmits an experience of authentic food to those privileged to share it.
In two and a half hours, over an extended lunch break, we are to learn how to make ravioli from scratch – and sit down and enjoy it, too. We start out by preparing the dough, which is much easier than I expected – just flour and egg, a pinch of salt and a bit of water if necessary. I had no trouble making the ingredients behave.
We put the dough to chill in the fridge while preparing the filling for traditional spinach and ricotta ravioli. Then it was time to roll the dough. Here I am ready to start.
I expected to be better at this but found it painful for my arthritic hands because the pasta has to be rolled very thinly; this can be done with a pasta machine if you have one, and should I make this at home, I will borrow my father in law’s.
Having used half the dough and made this batch of ravioli, we then prepared filling for the second type of ravioli. Despite initial doubts, this one turned out to be really delicious, and best of all, something I have never had before and will definitely make again: asparagus and taleggio ravioli in a taleggio, asparagus, almond and raisin sauce. For the filling, we simply boiled fresh asparagus and then put it in the blender. On top of each dollop of vegetable goes a dot of cheese.
To prepare the sauce, Francesca cooked the asparagus, sliced on an angle, in abundant extra virgin olive oil, and then added chopped skinned almonds and raisins; to this went the taleggio cheese at the last minute. The result is a creamy sauce that can be eaten on any pasta, substituting asparagus for zucchini or even without any vegetables. This is a sauce that is going to come in handy.
With our pasta babies in boiling water, Jacqui showed us into the dining room, a mix of modern and Baroque with strong colours that reflect Francesca’s strong personality. Her collection of unique glasses and antique silverware are part of her other passion, for she also runs an antique shop on via Maggio.
Finally, our pasta is served. It was delicious. I could not believe that I made this.
For your own cooking class in Florence, contact Francesca firstname.lastname@example.org, www.foodforfriends.it